Kirkus Speaks About Intimate Things

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Coincidentally, today’s the day I received a review of In This Love Together – Love, Failing Limbs and Cancer. When you’re writing about things as intimate as a marriage, inseminated deeply with love, you’re never sure if you see the width and breadth of the forest for at least one of the trees comprising it. The review seems a good one, but a couple of twisty phrases had me unsure. (This is quintessential writer’s insecurity – comes with the territory.)

So I felt the need to gather a second opinion, from the one person who had almost as much to do with the book’s compositions I – Connie May Fowler. Connie’s opinion? It’s a rave review – you should celebrate! So to kick off the celebration (to be followed by a very necessary, spring cleaning scrub-down, fore and aft, of my condo), here’s what Kirkus has to say about the memoir:

Mustin (We Are Strong, But We Are Fragile, 2014, etc.) offers an emotional, articulate memoir of his late wife’s fight against cancer.

The author, a longtime engineer, had already gone through a rocky marriage and a sour divorce when a former co-worker, Becca, reentered his life. She was an outdoorsy, practical, and attractive environmental specialist who was still healing from a previous marriage herself, and the two began seeing each other romantically. As Mustin notes, dating in middle age isn’t very different from the blissful giddiness and insecurity of dating in one’s 20s, and eventually he and Becca married at a courthouse on a workday afternoon. But 17 years later, his 64-year-old wife developed a cancerous tumor on her tongue. “My thoughts resist the linearity of chronological order,” the author says as he explains his abstract narrative, which starts the book with the onset of Becca’s illness, backtracks to the day that they first met, intersperses well-researched facts on cancer, and weaves through events in the couple’s marriage with the randomness of human memory. It’s a brilliant storytelling device—the reader struggles to understand new contexts, details, and narratives, just as the author himself struggles to make sense of a maddening terminal illness. Mustin’s love for and frequent awe of his wife is evident in every detail of this remembrance. Even when he frankly points out her shortcomings, such as her somewhat taciturn air and her difficult relationship with her mother (which he discovered during a particularly uncomfortable holiday visit), his reverent tone gives his words a rosy, warm hue. The details of Becca’s squamous-cell carcinoma are unsparing, yet the author balances them with delicate, loving vignettes of their life together, including unexpected moments of romance, which gives the book a disarming eloquence. Their relationship was not perfect, as Mustin makes clear; their flaws, insecurities, and reluctances often got the best of both of them. Yet as he writes their story, he articulates how their difficult journey revealed their true love, in spite of it all.

A memoir that balances clarity, precision, and emotion while telling a tragic story.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information on my books. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

The Memoir Of A Beloved

The death of a beloved is an amputation.
~ C. S. Lewis ~

I’m fortunate. Not many writers are in a position to have two books launched at about the same time. While things are being worked out with Omonomany Publishing for final publication of my WWII fictionalized biography, The Third Reich’s Last Eagle (some early readers wanted maps included in order to follow the advances and subsequent retreats of Germany’s Wehrmacht), I’m the daddy of a memoir.

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The memoir, In This Love Together – Love, Failing Limbs, and Cancer, is perhaps a final honoring of Becca, my deceased wife. A brave soul, she subjected herself to too many radiation treatments of her squamous cell carcinoma for later chemo treatments to do her any good. She lived for many months with a feeding tube and tracheostomy in order to stay alive. A most giving person, she made cookies for the cancer doctors and technicians in her last months.

One day she stood before the kitchen counter where we generally prepared food, intent on her batter, occasionally rocking side to side. She hadn’t fallen yet, but I knew it was coming.

“You don’t have to do that,” I said. “For crying out loud, they don’t expect cookies from you.”

“I know.” She didn’t turn, kept working her dough.

“Okay, so why do it?”

“I want to.”

For a second she swayed like a pine on a breezy day. “You okay?”

“I’m okay.”

“What can I do to help.”

“Nothing.”

I sighed, softly, so she wouldn’t hear it and claim petulance on my part. “Just be careful. Sit if you need to.”

“I will.”

The oncologist who had urged her into a second round of radiation, the radiation that proved insufficient to stop her cancer, but which had destroyed the surrounding tissue, graciously accepted her portion of the cookies, along with a scarf Becca had woven. After she died, I received a too-late card of thanks from this doctor.

Following Becca’s death it was my turn: heart surgery, followed by replacement of a failed knee replacement, and several months of physical therapy, which did little to aid the leg, which had atrophied in the interim. Romance entered my life again, then fled rather than see me through my mourning. And just as engineering work had gotten me through an earlier divorce, writing – this memoir, in particular – got me through the long months of loss.

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I had an odd bill of hers to accommodate as the months passed, but the nettlesome item was returning again and again to the cemetery management to have them honor their agreement to put Becca’s death date on her gravestone. It took two-and- a-half years to accomplish that, and as I stood before the completed gravestone, I had an odd realization. Somehow the fates had aligned to free me from my mourning.

I’ve heard from older, wiser persons that once you love someone, that love never goes away, and now I know the truth of that. But love does strange, counterintuitive things, too. Somehow, standing before her grave, I could swear she was whispering to me that it was time to move on.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information on my books. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

 

The Look of Love

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I had a conversation last night with a very good friend about a subject related to the quote below. While love seems an abstract in this day and age, what would you say is its manifestation?

Children?

Family?

Spouse?

Friends?

Your nation?

All these factor in, but what of all that is yours to “own?” Yourself, I think. So be what you’re meant to be:

a Writer?

a Musician?

an Engineer?

a Plumber?

a Carpenter?

Do that – be that to its fullest – and you’ll be personally fulfilled as a human being. According to Teilhard de Chardin, love is at that fulfillment’s basis.

“Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.”
~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin ~

The Hollowness of Deep Space

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Interstellar – The Movie

A friend, who had seen the movie previously, asked me to accompany her to see the flick for her second viewing. We saw it from stadium seating on the really, really big screen, the theater on Tuesday night almost empty so we could ooh and ahh to our heart’s delight.

Did I like it? Sure, it was great entertainment, with spectactular cinematography by a crew listing as long as your arm and a super soundtrack by Hollywood’s ace, Hans Zimmer. With movies or TV shows in futuristic settings or out there in deep space, we’ve come to expect almost tongue in cheek, humorous fun or something philosophically disturbing. Now I’m no math pro or astrophysicist or quantum explorer, but I thought the movie’s stab at all this is in effect throwing a bucketful of cutting edge scientific terms at us, making it seem a lot of hooey to thoughtful or science-based viewers. Sure, it makes a case for love and the interconnectedness of us humans as a solution to alienation, but such things are better done by demonstrating them in a very humanistic storyline instead of simply saying it and equating love with gravity. In other words, too much telling, not enough showing. And via too much scientific hooey.

What the movie does do in symbolic form is to tell us viewers that all our activities, from the momentous to the trivial, seem to be recursive, i.e., they do little more than reflect us to ourselves. This, of course, is a major tenet of the American version of postmodernism. In the end, the movie tried to do too much in its near-three hour run. Still, it was great fun to see Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damon, Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, and others strut their cinematic stuff.

My Rating: 14 of 20 stars

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Of Love and Adventure – An Interview With Brian Heffron

This is the second in a series of indie author interviews, with Brian Francis Heffron.

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I first encountered Brian on Facebook – both writers, and all that. Then he engaged me and others in a conversation on Goodreads concerning a most prescient, historical question: Why hasn’t there been more novels about the glories and travails of the ‘sixties – from the countercultural perspective? The course of that e-conversation led me to ponder memories of that era – mine certainly less romantic and countercultural than Brian’s. Still it was hard not to have grand adventures during that time – a time that has spawned many changes in the U.S.’s social fabric.  Brian’s story, Colorado Mandala, has to do with two friends living such grand adventures, both men vying for the affections of a beautiful woman. Besides being a sailor ( as he describes in his interview), Brian has been a writer/producer/director for PBS, and is a poet.

Below, I discuss the book and its beginnings with Brian.

Gridley Fires – – With the background I allude to above, how did you come to write this novel?

Brian Heffron – – In the seventies I attended Emerson College’s Writing Program in Boston. My “Writers in Residence” instructors included Russell Banks and Viet Nam novelist Tim O’Brien. These two men inspired me to write a novel about Viet Nam and its effects on our returning soldiers. Because I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from some events that happened to me in my youth, (even though I did not know it at that time) these brave Veterans and myself had something deeply in common. We had all experienced trauma, and in a sense were similar in our symtoms, which include hyper-vigilance, self-isolating behavior, over-reactive action, self medicating to remain calm, and a fear of perilous situations, even if they were only in our own minds. So I set out to hitchhike around our great and vast country with the intent to interview as many of these returning vets as I could. They did not want to have anything to do with me at first. It was a closed circle and if you were not a veteran you were not welcome. But gradually, probably because they could see that I was also damaged in the same way, they began to accept me and even welcome me into their private worlds. Thus I began to interview and record all their ghastly stories about what they had experienced in their war. I interviewed at least thirty of these men and even though their stories were different, they did have one thing in common: PTSD. Their plight and courage and decency inspired me to try and capture what had happened to them without revealing any private information, so I chose the vehicle of a fictional novel to communicate the effects of PTSD with the hope that it would function as a tool to help soothe, comfort, and perhaps even to  heal people with PTSD, no matter how they acquired it. I worked on the book for all of the remaining three years I was at Emerson College. Each week taking in a chapter to my writing class and having it examined and critiqued by my brother and sister writers in the Emerson College BFA program. By the time I graduated I had finished the book.

But then, upon graduation from Emerson, an opportunity to become a professional delivery sailor came my way, and I spent the next two years at sea, never sleeping ashore as I hopped from sailboat to sailboat making a complete circumnavigation of the North Atlantic. I worked my way up from deckhand to helmsman (I can steer well in a storm) to Celestial Navigator (there was no GPS back then so one had to master the use of a sexton – used to determine your position at sea) to licensed delivery skipper. I crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 35 days. All the while my book, now entitled Colorado Mandala, sat idle with the rest of my stored treasures at the house of a blood brother who cared for them.

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Then last year I found an old copy of the book and had it retyped into my Mac. I then set about revising it with the benefit of all I had learned in those four intervening decades. The book changed dramatically. PTSD had been identified and understood by this time, and I suddenly realized  that writing the book in the seventies had been an attempt at self healing. The book grew and deepened, perhaps because, dare I say, I too had grown and deepened?

In any case, the revised version was finished and sent out to editors and proof readers and gradually refined to the point where it was ready for publication. That is how the book was created and I think, according to the reviews we have received so far, I may have succeeded in capturing what it is like to suffer from PTSD and perhaps even to have pointed a way to recovery through the love of others and therapy from learned doctors. That was my intent, and if you read the book I think you will agree that it does soothe and explain this complex and painful malady now suffered by hundereds of thousands of Americans from  all walks of life.

But the book is also a cracking action adventure story and a deeply involving romance…so it is not just about Viet Nam and PTSD. It is a story of people and the lives they lead, with the pain and joy we all feel every day.

GF – – In Colorado Mandala, your adventurous narrator, Paul, seems poles apart from his troubled friend, Michael Atman. How do you see their differences, their similarities? What, in your view, makes this pair work as fictional characters?

BH – – They are almost opposites. Some readers have pointed out that perhaps all three characters in Colorado Mandala, Michael, the x-Green beret, Paul, the wandering seeking soul of a new generation, and Sarah, the earthy and nurturing woman they both love, are all parts of myself. I think this may be true. Paul is the narrator and he is a gentle soul who knows his friend Michael has been damaged and cares and loves him enough to stand by him during his worst demonstrations of PTSD. They are “buddies” or “mates” or whatever word you want to use to describe two men who love each other unconditionally. They fight and argue, but beneath that they would probably die for one another. This is the greatest love one can have for another human being, and Sarah is there to try to referee their friendship so that neither of them actually goes too far over the edge. You have to read the book to see if I have succeeded in telling a true story about two men and a women who love each other and are desperately trying to help each other become whole again.

GF – – The book’s mood seems largely captured by your narrative. Was it a conscious decision to do this?

BH – – Yes, I guess so. The 1970s was a unique era of change in America. The country was split down the middle by politics, the assassinations of the previous decade, and the liberation movements of civil rights, feminism and the newly fought-for acceptance of same sex relationships. They even had a name for it back then: it was called “The Generation Gap,” and it was like a Berlin Wall between the young and the old. I tried in my book to tear this wall down by showing that people are all the same at heart, even if we have dramatically different beliefs and make widely different choices. We all bleed red and feel pain. So why not emphasize the similarities rather than highlight the differences? This is what human values should be, tolerance and acceptance of all others who do no harm. To this day, I do not understand why people stir up trouble for other folks who are doing them no harm. I think it may be because conflict makes money for media corporations, as they can sell people screaming at each other but not reaching out for each other. The pursuit of money in America has become the ultimate goal and the previous values of love, friendship and shared hardship have mostly gone the way of the log cabin. They are still here to a degree, but they are hidden away in the dense woods of the high mountains. I would like to see love portrayed more often and not just this endless battle of minor differences and intolerance of the choices of others. I hope that makes sense.

GF – – What are you up to now; is there another novel in the works?

BH – – Yes, I am now writing an historical fiction book about the period of the Irish rebellion from approximately 1907 to 1922. My ancestor, James Larkin was the founder of the Irish Citizens Army, a labor army formed of dock workers, carters and transportation workers, which quickly became the main defense of the labor class of Dublin, people who at that time were living in a grim and horrible squalor brought about by the exploitation of the Irish people by the British aristocracy. For instance, the death rate in Dublin at that time was comparable to that of “The Black Hole of Calcutta”: Twenty-five people to a room and rampant and crushing poverty. Larkin was like an avenging angel as he roused the Irish people back to their senses and told them: “The great appear great because you are on your knees – Arise!” I am an Irish Citizen and this is really a family history set against the larger world-affecting revolution that freed Ireland from British domination.

 

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.

The Romance of Knighting

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer – The Knight’s Tale

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image via en.wikipedia.org

 

There are two main archetypes that get the military-minded going, and Chaucer hits them both in this tale – evidence enough that his Tales continue to talk to us over the span of seven hundred years. 

One of these archetypes is the military fascination with the warring of ancient Greece – certainly that of Sparta, but also that of Athens. The other is that of gallantry – probably amplified by troubadours of the Middle Ages – a gallantry having to do with knights’ protective nature for children, women, and the elderly. 

In this tale, one of the primary drivers is unrequited love for a seemingly beautiful woman, in this case, Theseus’ sister-in-law, Emelye. Yet another facet of such gallantry has to do with sparing the lives of enemies, as Theseus does with cousins Palamon and Arcite. 

Unrequited love, according to this archetype can do what warring sometimes cannot – it can weaken and destroy a knight. In the Tale’s great battle (there must always be a battle), Palamon has prayed to Venus to allow Arcite to prevail in the interest of Palamon’s love for Emelye. This doesn’t happen, and Palamon, Theseus and Emelye are inconsolable. 

The underlying theme of such stories, as in the knight’s, is that it’s impossible to pre-ordain the outcome of events, the fulfillment of desires. This is a truism that’s widely misunderstood in all aspects of any society, but never more obviously than in the experiences of warriors.

 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

Love and Mice

There's something of an accepted technique to short nonfiction writing, i.e., the author uses a minute and very specific life experience to demonstrate a much deeper and broader facet of life. In the winter 2011 issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine, Susan Cheever examines relationships between humans and animals – feral and tame – beginning with mice darting around in the dark space of her home. As she does so, she introduces the element of love.

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In a nutshell, Cheever's thesis is that we are able to love domesticated animals; the wild ones, however, seem to engender fear in us. 

But even this is a set-up for Cheever's final statement, and I'll quote it here – one of the most insightful comments I've ever seen from a woman about man-woman relationships:

There's a wildness to most kinds of love, to that moment of recognition when you know that a relative stranger is going to be important in the story of your life. Over time, though, that wildness dissipates. Is that when true love begins, or is that when it ends? Looking back at my connections to men, both serious and ephemeral, I wonder if a lot of the energy I spent was an attempt to tame them, to domesticate them and to keep them from frightening me by darting around in the dark."